Chris Wilson, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

TITLE: Director, Global Health Discovery & Translational Sciences Program

FUNDING AREAS: Drug and vaccine discovery, controlling diseases transmitting mosquitos, maternal health, and child health

CONTACT: chris.wilson@gatesfoundation.org, 206-709-3100

IP TAKE: Wilson is an accomplished pediatrician and immunologist who is charged with giving big money—grants of $100,000 to $1 million—to scientists seeking to save the world from deadly diseases.

PROFILE: As everyone knows, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has lots of money. The philanthropic powerhouse sits on assets of more than $34.6 billion and spends more than $3.2 billion a year on grants. An organization of this size has room to be broad in scope. And indeed, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation makes investments in countries around the world, tackling such major global challenges as HIV, polio, and the accessibility and availability of libraries and education.

The whole spirit of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation seems to be relentless ambition and optimism. And so it takes a particular sort of person, an unusually visionary and creative person, to be a leader within the foundation's grantmaking component. Chris Wilson, director of the Gates' Global Health Discovery & Translational Sciences division, is just such a person, an accomplished doctor and scientific innovator with an abiding faith in the world-changing power of health philanthropy.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Health Discovery & Translational Sciences unit concerns itself primarily with four things: vaccines, controlling disease-spreading mosquitoes, drug discovery, and maternal and child health. As a pediatrician and an immunologist, Wilson knows a thing or two about the importance of, say, prenatal care or the significance of vaccines in eradicating the world of deadly diseases. Before joining the Gates Foundation, Wilson chaired the department of immunology at the University of Washington and served in the U.S. Public Health Service after getting his medical degree from UCLA and training in pediatrics at Harvard University. Wilson also is a perennial participant in national health campaigns; he served on the Institute of Medicine Vaccine Safety Review Committee and the National Advisory Council on Child Health and Human Development.

One of Wilson's signature initiatives at Gates is the Grand Challenges in Global Health Program. The program's goal is to invest in radical innovations that can solve some of the world's most pressing health problems. Chosen grantees get $100,000 to fund the first year's efforts, but if the project continues successfully, grantees can apply for up to $1 million in Gates Foundation funding.

A sampling of past Grand Challenges grant recipients:

  • Next Dimensions Technology, Inc., which is using Gates's support to develop a breathalyser that can identify active cases of tuberculosis
  • Ian Matthews of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom to support the development of a patch that allows people to draw their own blood and send it for analysis without refrigeration
  • Chetal Patil at Vanderbilt University to support the creation of a mobile phone app that detects jaundice in babies

All big ideas with potentially big public health impacts if they come to fruition as planned. And that's really the point for Wilson, as Tom Paulson reports in an article for Humanosphere, "The sky's the limit, says Wilson. [The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation] like[s] even crazy-sounding ideas, he said, so long as high-risk proposals also come with a potential for high payoff if they actually work."